Clear rules for cleaner waters

The Obama administration’s issuance this week of the Clean Water Rule to restore safeguards under the 1972 Clean Water Act will help keep our waters clean — from stream to sea and in between — but should also clarify muddied regulatory waters for farmers and other property owners.

Decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2001 and 2006 left about 60 percent of the nation’s streams and millions of acres of wetlands without clear rules or regulation under the Clean Water Act’s intended protections. The legal limbo left landowners, particularly farmers, without clear direction of what was expected of them. And a New York Times story found the lack of enforceable rules led the federal Environmental Protection Agency to drop more than 1,500 investigations against polluters in just the first four years after the court’s 2006 decision.

In announcing the rule, President Obama noted that 1 in 3 Americans get their drinking water from streams that lacked clear rules for protection. At a statewide level, the rules will now cover 54 percent of Washington state’s streams that had been left without adequate protections. Bruce Speight, executive director for WashPIRG, a public interest research group, called the new rules “the biggest victory for clean water in a decade,” particularly for the health of Puget Sound, which depends on clean water from the streams and rivers that feed it.

Even before details of the new rules were released this week, the Republican-led U.S. House voted to block the rules, calling them vague, an overreach of executive authority and done with the intention to expand the Clean Water Act’s jurisdiction. The Senate is expected to follow along the same line later this summer.

None of that is the case. The rules themselves have now clarified what is covered by regulation. Nor is the rule-making authority of presidents and their agencies anything new. And while the regulations now cover smaller bodies of water such as streams and wetlands, the Clean Water Act, signed into law by President Nixon, still is not restored to the full regulatory authority that was set out in 1972.

The EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which proposed the rule jointly, went to great lengths in recent months to explain the regulations and take comment from those potentially effected. Groups representing industries and farmers, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, have challenged the rule, fearing it will burden landowners with environmental assessments and permitting.

But another agricultural organization, the National Farmers Union, which represents farmers in 33 states, including Washington, provided a more measured and less alarmist response. While it expressed concern that regulations might be extended to bodies of water that wouldn’t effect water quality, it praised the EPA for its outreach and said the result were rules that offered farmers clarity about what streams and ditches were covered and limited the risk for unnecessary enforcement and litigation.

Clearer rules help keep the waters cleaner.

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